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Just Cause 4

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The Just Cause series has always been a strange one. The mixture of vaguely grounded political intrigue and personal stakes often juxtapose awkwardly with the gonzo, Michael-Bay-after-a-fat-line-of-blow bullgoose lunacy of the action sequences and set pieces. Still, despite this inconsistency the games are usually a whole lot of fun, and this is true of the latest entry, Just Cause 4, although there are a few caveats.

Set in the fictional South American country of Solis, Rico Rodriguez is back to take on the Black Hand, an army of ne’er-do-wells run by Gabriela Morales. This rather generic premise leads to a rather generic campaign, whereby you’ll retake various areas of Solis, unlock more main and side missions, grapple and wingsuit your way across the sprawling environments and, of course, blow shit up with great alacrity.

Just Cause 4’s newest addition is extreme weather, including missions where you’ll be forced to brave tornados and super storms that fill the skies with deadly bolts of lightning (which is very, very frightening). Later on, you’ll also gain the ability to control said storms, which is a fine idea but its execution feels a little limited in this context. Other than that, it’s Just Cause business as usual – use the grapple hook to destroy stuff, shoot stuff, explode stuff, repeat. It’s classic but it also feels a little samey, particularly if you have vivid memories of Just Cause 3 which only came out in 2015.

More damning is the fact that a lot of Just Cause 4 is, well, rather ugly. Character models, cut scenes and even some environments look seriously janky at times, and while it never reaches the levels of Fallout 76’s hideousness, it’s strange to see nonetheless. It’s hard to get truly invested in Rico’s story when his ugly mug keeps clipping into his shirt, or the characters that he’s talking to drop textures or pop in and out of view.

Ultimately, Just Cause 4 is a fun time, with great explosions and physics-based mayhem. It’s also basically an oversized Just Cause 3 expansion, with unfortunate technical deficiencies that mar the overall experience. Treat it like a b-grade matinee movie, and you’ll likely enjoy the slightly shonky, but explosive shenanigans on offer.

 
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Darksiders III

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In a world of nuanced, compelling narratives like Red Dead Redemption 2 and God of War, there’s something almost quaint about a game like Darksiders III. Whereas GoW deconstructs ancient stories and superstition to try and ground the more esoteric elements of mythology in emotion, Darksiders III unapologetically leans into the goofiness.

You, the player, inhabit the role of Fury – third horse person of the apocalypse after Darksiders’ War and Darksiders II’s Death. Fury is a bit of a cranky moll, to be honest, wielding an acerbic wit and a powerful whip, she flits about the screen causing bulk carnage paired with nimble acrobatics. For reasons too convoluted to enter into without spending 45 minutes explaining the dense, silly backstory, Fury has to go to Earth – which is a total shitfight due to a war between angels and demons – and defeat creatures that are the literal personification of the seven deadly sins. To help her on the quest, Fury loses a horse but gains a spirit friend, and the mysterious Lord of Hollows assists her rise to power for reasons known only to him.

Darksiders III brims with style and goofy enthusiasm, and as a medium-budget hack and slash adventure there is fun to be had. Unfortunately, it lacks the depth of the previous entry, Darksiders II, and ugly framerate issues persist even when not much is happening on screen. This third entry seems more in line with a Dark Souls-esque experience, with challenging bosses all the way through, but never feels precise or tactical enough to wear that mantle comfortably.

Fury, also, is kind of a dickhead, offering snark and edgy witticisms that feel ripped straight out of a comic from the early 1990s. She’s fun to play, mind you, physically weaker than Death but faster and more agile, and the whip is a grand weapon/swinging device.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of Darksiders III is going to depend on your ability to adapt and accept. You’ll need to adapt to the new direction the series takes here, ignoring your love for the previous entry and focusing on what’s in front of you. You’ll also need to accept that the game has technical issues. Nothing like the bewildering mess of Fallout 76, but enough that you’ll notice it and it may break the immersion.

Darksiders III isn’t quite the sequel fans of the series have been waiting for, but it’s engaging enough that you’ll want to see another, probably final chapter down the road. Hopefully next time they’ll keep the bloody horse!

 
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The Bombing (aka Air Strike)

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This Chinese-produced, big-budget action drama was devised as a salute to the Allied victory of fascism in World War II, however, it became a casualty of the tax evasion scandal that embroiled star actress Fan Bingbing, who was convicted, jailed (and subsequently released) for financial fraud. From a PR perspective, the film was damaged-goods and for various reasons, it was ultimately shelved (it was shot in 2015) and its Chinese release cancelled. Now, it’s undergone a name change, coupled with a re-jigged release in the US.

As it stands, the story features a crumpled and thoroughly disengaged Bruce Willis as U.S. Military advisor Colonel Jack Johnson, ‘training’ a squadron of Chinese pilots who are battling an onslaught of Japanese air attacks. At the same time, ex-pilot Xue Gangtou (Ye Liu) drives a military truck with a top-secret cargo through dangerous territory, along the way rescuing a schoolteacher (Ma Su) and some of her students who’ve survived an air attack. All this is capped off by a mahjong tournament that takes place in the capital during the bombing raids, presumably meant to give some sort of human-focused climax to the proceedings.

What was clearly intended to be a lavish, Hollywood style epic with multiple plot threads, numerous characters (both Chinese and American) and an epic scope, has been mercilessly re-edited into a frenzy of action sequences interspersed with discombobulated dramatic scenes and squeezed into a running time of just over 90 minutes.

According to the credits, Mel Gibson was a ‘consultant’, though it’s hard to see how any such creative input has been applied to the characters or story, or for that matter any overall logic applied to the tonal flow of the film.

The plotting and pacing have been so bizarrely clipped, there’s been zero effort in editing the film to create an emotional through-line on which to hang the character moments. The resulting experience amounts to a montage of segments from scenes where the scripting and performances weren’t that great to start with, where Chinese actors deliver over-dubbed lines like “Sir! Please allow us to go kick some ass!” This punctuates the gossamer-thin story thread with a leaden thud.

To make things worse, what are clearly, half-finished effects shots and sloppily composited CG action sequences that wouldn’t feel believable on a PlayStation 2 only serve to undermine any semblance of drama.

Tonally weird character histrionics take Hollywood style combat jeopardy clichés to a laughable extreme (the pilot with a picture of his sweetheart and child next to his altimeter is fundamentally going to die, that was established quite clearly in Hot Shots and even then, the character was called ‘Dead Meat’).

A great deal of money was spent here, though it seems to have been utterly derailed by the problematic production woes. There have been a number of slickly executed, western-aimed Chinese productions that managed to effectively cross the cultural and lingual barrier, however, it seems that this one exploded on the launch pad.=

The rapid-fire hack and slash editing that skips through dramatic beats like a trailer montage, is testament to the fact that there was at least an intent to tell a sprawling story on an epic canvas, but that crucial balance of story, tone and character is reliant on the wax and wane of the financial and creative forces at play during production. If these elements were interfered with, then the whole damn thing can unravel – and how.

 
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Hitman 2

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Hitman 2 proves one thing very well: sometimes plot can just get in the way. The second entry in the series since 2016’s bold and surprisingly effective reboot Hitman, Hitman 2 offers a familiar experience to its immediate predecessor but with enough polish and new tweaks to make the experience worthwhile.

Hitman 2 tells the tale of the bald barcode-bonced killer for hire, Agent 47. Old mate is still on the trail of the “Shadow Client” from the last game and it will take him all over the world to unravel a mystery that ranges from the unnecessarily convoluted to the downright silly. To make matters worse the between mission cutscenes are mainly a series of stills with exposition blurted over the top. This is likely due to the game’s comparatively small budget, but that doesn’t make these interludes any more compelling or coherent. Happily, they don’t matter. At all. You can, and should, skip right by these bits of business and get straight to what matters: large sprawling sandboxes full of murder toys!

See, once you bypass the aforementioned narrative info dumps you enter the real game. Hitman 2 offers the series’ distinctive sense of variety and black humour, gifting you with numerous ways of dispatching your targets in spectacular and frequently hilarious ways. Booby trapped cars, pre-programmed robots, explosive rubber duckies or just shoving a tattoo gun right inside a bloke’s ear – the game has it all. Each of the six levels are massive with multiple ways of tricking the AI and setting up legitimately satisfying kill scenarios. This might have felt grim in other hands, but the game’s sense of humour manifests in surprising ways. The fact that Agent 47 just happens to look exactly like a famous model/actor/hairdresser etc. is a frequent refrain and the monologues delivered by the soon-to-victims show them all as unlikable mongrels very much deserving of the ice embrace of the grave.

Hitman 2 is a little rough around the edges and light on narrative depth, but what it lacks in those areas it makes up for in viscerally creative murderous fun. Engaging and adaptable, Hitman 2 is a must for those feeling sociopathic in the silly season.

 
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The American Meme

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Like some visitation of a harbinger of a coming apocalypse that is starting to seem more-and-more like something we deserve, the documentary The American Meme explores the rise of the Instagram celebrity, the ‘influencer’ and in particular, a cross-section of Insta-celebs who’ve gained an insane amount of notoriety through shameless self-promotion in social media.

Musician and producer DJ Khaled, an affable personality who documents his daily rituals and combines self-promotion of himself as a brand.

Kirill Bichutsky, known to his 1.1 million Instagram followers as @slutwhisperer. He lives the kind of Girls Gone Wild, party-every-night lifestyle that would be the daily routine of a cashed-up, feckless, misogynist douchebag. Curiously though, at his core, Kirill seems tormented by the utter emptiness of his fame and ultimately sees the party-boy reputation he’s constructed as being an impediment to moving on to a different career and phase in his life, mainly because of the gargantuan legacy of his digital footprint. If you search his name online, all that appears are reaction-baiting boorishly sexist memes, such as selfie shots of Bichutsky wedging his head between hundreds of different women’s naked backsides and breasts or numerous images of the Russian American bon vivant spraying champagne in the faces of a plethora of glazed-eyed women. By celebrating this debauched lifestyle, he’s become a social media celebrity though even he himself seems innately aware that it will dry up sometime soon, faster than you can say ‘vine’.

Brittany Furlan is an actress and comedian who built a huge following on Vine with little mini comedy clips and character skits, only problem was Vine closed its doors. Furlan’s self-promotion has seen her gain small movie roles and development deals for TV comedy shows.

Josh Ostrovsky goes by the twitter name @thefatjew and has likewise established himself as a personality unattached to any kind of comedy or acting career, though he will most likely move into those areas.

Capping off all of these personalities is the one who really started this: Paris Hilton. Having established perfume and fashion accessory lines, she has built her own huge pile of cash on which to cry herself to sleep at night. These days, Paris exploits her fanbase on social media as something of a rent-an-acolyte as she visits international cities and DJs at various parties and events. Paris Hilton is nothing if not a businesswoman, seemingly possessing an almost Warhol-esque sense of the pop culturally relevant (Warhol is something of a touchstone for her), she rides a self-obsessed wave of narcissistic branding which no doubt rubbed-off on her former assistant, Kim Kardashian West.

Frankly, we are not entirely sure if this documentary is genuinely informative and interesting or, in its depiction of the weapons-grade vacuity of its subjects is actually just terrifying and galactically disheartening.

 
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Fallout 76

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Conceptually Fallout 76 had a lot of potential. The idea of taking Bethesda’s popular post-apocalyptic RPG franchise and making it available as an online world could, if executed well, be a fascinating and intriguing evolution of the series. Imagine spending hours getting lost in byzantine quests with surprising outcomes, all the while sharing your shock and amazement with a group of up to three mates. What a premise! Sadly, however, what Fallout 76 actually delivers at time of writing is a baffling misstep, seemingly avoiding everything cool or interesting about the concept.

The plot is solid enough. The year is 2102 and it’s twenty five years since a nuclear war destroyed most of the earth. You, the player, are a dweller from Vault 76 – an underground bunker in West Virginia – and are now tasked with heading out into the wasteland, fixing what you can and making steps to repopulate the treacherous landscape.

Quite honestly, the first few hours of Fallout 76 are a good deal of fun. You leave the vault and basically need to scavenge weapons, armour and food just to stay alive. You’ll also complete simple, but effective, quests to level up and slowly learn more about the massive open world you’ve wandered into. There’s a genuine sense of discovery and excitement in those early hours, particularly when playing with friends, and you can’t wait until the proper quests begin and you can embark on the real adventure. The problem? The real adventure never arrives. The early hours are basically exactly the same as the later hours, with bigger, scarier monsters but no mission variety.

A major conceit in the game is that everyone is dead. All the humans were killed, so it means that every quest you go on involves schlepping to a place, having a look around, finding a skeleton and then listening to a long holotape and/or reading green text on black on an inexplicably intact computer monitor. This sort of environmental storytelling has worked in Fallout games before, because you can find extra information about the world and dig into the lore if you so wish. However, in Fallout 76 this isn’t the extra spice that makes it nice, this is the whole of the story. Every bastard has carked it which means there are no NPCs, no characters to engage with, no meaningful resolutions to narrative threads and no real point in getting emotionally invested. Even the few quest-giving robots that exist are shallow as hell because there are zero dialogue options and no way of having a discussion with them.

Combine this genuinely baffling storytelling decision from a company known for good stories with janky, unresponsive shooting made worse by turning VATS (a system whereby you could slow time and take enemies down with strategy in previous titles) into a barely functional auto-aim and a legion of bugs, crashes, glitches, frame rate issues and legitimately broken mission objectives and you’ve got a game that feels profoundly undercooked and likely about eighteen months away from being ready to release.

That’s not to say that there aren’t fun moments with friends. You can team up with mates and bumble through the wasteland, getting into fights with monsters and other players (although the PvP is deeply tedious and should probably be ignored) but if shooting shit with your mates is the goal there are better, and much cheaper, games out there! It’s genuinely staggering that a AAA game company thought releasing this shallow, borderline broken title in this state was acceptable and yet here we are.

Look, it’s not all doom and gloom. Perhaps in twelve months Bethesda will have patched this to an acceptable state, because the shooting/looting/crafting loop can be fine, if a tad simplistic, but we simply can’t recommend this game in its current incarnation. Every year one game seems to stand out as the big disappointment of that release period. In times past we’ve had No Man’s Sky, Mass Effect: Andromeda and, unfortunately, this year’s bummer is Fallout 76. “War never changes,” or so the quote goes, but Fallout apparently does and sadly this time it was not a change for the better.

 
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The A to Z of The Other Side of the Wind

A conventional review doesn’t seem appropriate when reviewing an Orson Welles film, particularly one that’s getting a release more than 40 years after actually being made, so Stephen Vagg thought he’d tackle it A to Z.

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Red Dead Redemption 2

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The original Red Dead Redemption came out on consoles in 2010. It was a complete anathema to most games, a truly singular piece of work. For a start it was a western, a genre of game that is so niche as to be practically nonexistent. Further, it came from Rockstar Games – a studio famous for creating the controversial Grand Theft Auto series – and yet was a measured, deliberately paced rumination on life in the old west, that rarely resorted to graphic violence or empty snark to make its point. Conceptually and creatively it was a rare and beautiful thing and in terms of the final product it was an absolute masterpiece and one of the finest video games ever created.

The idea of a sequel to this wonderful title seemed unlikely, after all, the first game was respected and critically beloved but hadn’t exactly set the world on fire sales-wise. Despite this, Red Dead Redemption 2 is here and once again the bar has been raised.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is actually a prequel to Red Dead Redemption (and has no discernible connection to Red Dead Revolver which is totally fine because it was a bit naff). This time around you play Arthur Morgan, second in command to Dutch van de Linde of the infamous Van de Linde gang (the same people you were hunting in Red Dead Redemption).

Prequels are always a risky proposition as finding out how things happened is often a disappointment, and probably should have been left to the imagination. Happily, in this case, going back in time was a good move; think Better Call Saul as opposed to the Star Wars prequels.

The original RDR was a focused narrative about a man who is forced to hunt down his former gang members. It had a classic film feel, and easily could have been the plot for a spaghetti western starring Clint Eastwood as the man with no name. RDR 2, by comparison, is more like an entire TV series. The mechanics of being a member of a gang are initially daunting, because you’ll have dozens of people chasing you for help with missions, food acquisition, conflict resolution and even debt collection. The original’s mysterious man on a mission vibe is gone, but in its place is a deeper, often much more nuanced look at group dynamics at a strange, iconic time in humanity’s history.

Subtext aside, there’s also a lot going on with the story proper. Dutch and Arthur have come off a disastrous job that ended in violence and loss of life, and they spend most of the game’s massive runtime trying to piece themselves together and earn enough cash to get out of the life.

If you’ve ever seen a western, or watched a crime movie, you can probably figure out that things won’t go according to plan and there’s a bittersweet fascination in watching a group of lawless idealists facing the blunt and thuggish realities of greed and human nature.

Gameplay-wise Rockstar hasn’t exactly broken their mould. You’ll head to various characters to trigger missions, run into strangers out in the world and come across all manner of unexpected events as the dizzying array of systems come together in surprising ways.

You might start off heading towards a mission, but then a woman will call for help from the side of the road. You’ll go to help her and then – bugger! – turns out she was a honey trap and now some bandits are shooting at you. You blow those fools away, but someone witnesses the act without understanding why you shot them and now there’s a witness to a homicide! You chase after the witness, but do you threaten them or kill them? Because the last thing you need is the law on your tail, but can your hands really take being stained with more blood?

These sorts of random confluences occur all the time, often in unique and surprising ways, giving the open world a feeling of life and authenticity.

On the downside, the law are incredibly obnoxious and frequently appear to have psychic powers when they’re giving chase, which can sap the joy right quick when you’re moseying about more densely populated areas.

Perhaps this is Rockstar’s way of making you agree with Arthur who hates the big city and would rather be riding on the plain, but crikey it’ll give you the roaring shits at times!

While we’re on the subject of negatives, it should also be noted that at times the controls are a little clunky. You’ll quite often pull a gun when you’re trying to say hello and punch a horse accidentally, which is objectively hilarious but also a tad irksome. In the scheme of things these are minor, but worth nothing anyway.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is also paced unlike any other video game, including the first RDR. It’s deliberately paced, which is reviewer speak for ‘slow’. The map is massive, and your starting horses are quick to tire, and fast travel options don’t open for ages. You’ll be forced, very often, to ride across lengthy sections of America, but that’s the game training you to understand the rhythms of the title.

The game is slow because the west is slow, drink it in, don’t be in a rush to finish everything, and take your time. It’s difficult at first, particularly in the game’s slightly claustrophobic opening sections, but it becomes seductive and then utterly engaging.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is perhaps not as focused as the previous game, but it’s not trying to be. This is a sprawling epic, a whole series on Netflix as opposed to a single movie. It also has an unexpectedly emotional core that may have you tearing up at least a couple of times, and never relies on the easy cynicism of GTA V or even the constant wry disappointment that typified so many of the missions in RDR.

This is a tale to be savoured and enjoyed, it’s a fine whiskey so try and sip it if you can. Even if you ignore every side quest (and you shouldn’t!), the game is a good 50-60 hours long, so expect to be at it for a while. That’s before the online content drops some time later in the year so in terms of value for money RDR 2 is hard to beat.

Ultimately, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a sprawling, epic masterpiece. While the story isn’t quite as focused as the original RDR, the world and characters it offers the player are second to none.

Gorgeous to behold, fascinating to hear and an absolute delight to inhabit, RDR 2 is an embarrassment of western-style riches and a must own title in any console owner’s video game library.